The independent news organization of Duke University

Of grandfathers

back to work

It has been a year.

The sense of the right words has faded in the chaos, making it a chore to see the whole beauty of a moment, of a blank space after a chapter’s end. These “stops to smell the roses” are, more often than not, standstills that are scheduled by self-enforced signage, scripted with a detailed olfactory account of what the sense has long since sensed. When the weight of living feels just as heavy as the weight of not living. Yes, “life is long” and yes, “it gets better,” but life has a way of reminding us that, no matter its length, it’s still intensely short. And in getting better, we still lose a lot along the way.

It has been a year in which I lost my three grandfathers. First, my mother’s father, Popsie, in August. Second, my father’s stepfather of 40 years, Grandpa Mike, in April. Third, my father’s father, Papa Marty, in September. 

They were, together, the cement that bound together so much of the reason and the will that shaped and supported my faith in the big picture. They held wisdom in their palms for show-and-tell, yet they managed to keep the magic behind the trick to themselves. They rationed out moments of their own lives to their grandchildren: for us to learn from, for us to follow or deviate from, for us to dream up anew for ourselves.

They were big men to a growing boy. Their certainty in a mercurial world and the comfort they found in the core principle that things were good and that things would always be good—these inspired me to romanticize moments in otherwise ordinary days, to explore the possibilities in everything. To be confused and bewildered and lost and unafraid in strange wide forests of thought. To be still in time, nothing but time. Because we had nothing but time.

Popsie played the piano, composing musicals for Broadway stages and for living rooms. Grandpa Mike read shelves of books and sailed the seas, first as a soldier in a war, then as a suitor vying for my grandmother’s affection. Papa Marty fixed people’s eyes, and himself envisioned an attainable future for his city, once in public office. They were married once, twice and three times respectively. They had worked and played and dreamed and lived and loved and lost all well before I came into the world. The marathons these men ran were recorded on tape measures they stretched across generations. They made my life feel small, fitting beautifully into each present moment, as if time was ticking to a beat that was mine to keep.

And then, their big lives become small, and their time ticked out. Their heft fell with their health. Their size was downed to messy puddles of wordy translations expressed in eulogies that merely scratched surfaces of experiences and only measured inches of miles of emotions. 

I grew too big. I lost my sense of what mattered most. I found fear in the corners of the unknown that my grandfathers had once informed with their time-earned stories and with their long survival through great trials. Their fight was fought; their battles not necessarily won or lost but battled all the same, put away in the past. They had passed. And my context disappeared.

My current troubles became my life’s work. After just a couple of decades of life, I felt that I was far behind. Without the presence of their scale, without the tape measure they had provided, my life made me feel small in the littlest way. It buried me in ant-holes that I treated like inescapable caverns. I couldn’t latch onto tangible points of reference, so I had none, and I created a system in which everything was a microcosm for something else. With no time to spare, I forgot to get lost, to be bewildered, to be unafraid. I forgot so much.

I forgot spontaneity and surprise. I forgot karma and fate. And without their phone calls, handwritten notes and newspaper clippings, I forgot some of the essentials about my Popsie, my Grandpa Mike and my Papa Marty. I forgot who they were to me, and who they were to themselves.

They lived for 87, 89 and 87 years, respectively. Each of these men had lived for over three-fourths of their lives, long before they first held me in their arms. They had time to search, wander, discover, lose, and begin to search for something else, long before I knew them. They had carved a timeless wisdom by paying attention to the moments as they happened, day by day, noting what their senses told them, and marching forward. Playing an old tune and shifting the key. Looking to the horizon and jibing the sail. Writing a memo and incorporating the compromise. They mused upon the present, and used what they learned to improve the future.

Now, they’re gone. But still now, they remain. They’re butterflies, felt in my stomach when I don’t see what’s ahead of me and nearly visible when they flutter over me in quiet times. They’re bull elephants, too, charging through my memory with the constant challenge to “get back to your work, boy.” They’re barely perceptible and profoundly present. Soft in sound and loud in voice. So big and so small. 

But mine. Always mine.

They’re forces that hold me in their arms, pushing me into the deep end of an emotion or an experience or a strange wide forest of thought with the knowledge that I will rise above and float on with time to spare. Time for the good things. Time to get lost. Time, once again, on my side. 

They’re harmony in a sad song. They’re troops in ongoing personal battles. They’re a pair of glasses in cases of situational blindness. My grandfathers.

Gone, yet still, grand company to keep.

Jackson Prince is a Trinity junior and the editorial page editor of The Chronicle. His column, “back to work,” usually runs on alternate Mondays.

Discussion

Share and discuss “Of grandfathers” on social media.